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North Korea estimates several hundred dead in train blast, British ambassador says

SHARE North Korea estimates several hundred dead in train blast, British ambassador says

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DANDONG, China — North Korean officials say several hundred people were believed killed and several thousand injured in an explosion at a train station in the town of Ryongchon near the Chinese border, the British ambassador to North Korea said Friday.

The North Korean government appealed for international help and, breaking with its intense isolation, said it would take foreign aid workers to the disaster scene.

The government officials also told Ambassador David Slinn and other European envoys stationed in Pyongyang that many might still be trapped in collapsed buildings nearby, a British Foreign Office spokesman said in London.

Earlier, a U.N. agency in Geneva said the secretive communist government had acknowledged at least 50 people were killed and more than 1,000 injured in Thursday's blast that destroyed more than 1,800 dwellings.

The statements — North Korea's first on the disaster — came as the government made a formal request to the United Nations for international help.

Slinn and other European Union ambassadors were to visit the disaster site Saturday, and that "will help us make an assessment of what might be needed," the spokesman said. The U.N. said its representatives, as well as those of other aid agencies, also would travel to the region.

"The North Korean officials have said that several hundred were thought to be dead and several thousand injured," the British Foreign Office said.

Death tolls from aid workers and witnesses in North Korea have ranged from 150 to 1,500. Reports also varied over what happened.

The accident happened at 12:10 p.m. local time Thursday (11:10 p.m. EDT Wednesday) when two trains carrying explosives collided as they were being shifted to different tracks at the station, the U.N. agency said, quoting initial government reports.

The U.N. statement quoted North Korea's Flood Damage Rehabilitation Committee as saying the explosives were en route to a construction site for a large scale irrigation project.

"A formal request for international assistance in response to the disaster was received by the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in Pyongyang this afternoon from the government," the U.N. statement said.

The explosion "reportedly caused major damage to housing and infrastructure, including schools and medical facilities," the U.N. said.

Anne O'Mahony, regional director of the Irish aid agency Concern, said from Pyongyang that the North Korean government said the explosion occurred when train cars carrying dynamite touched power lines. She told Irish radio station RTE that the government said 150 people died, "including some schoolchildren."

Red Cross spokesman John Sparrow in Beijing said the blast damaged an additional 6,350 apartments or houses, citing information from Red Cross officials in the North.

"When you look at the number of buildings destroyed, you have to be afraid of what you're going to find," Sparrow said. "We are anticipating that the casualty figures will increase," Sparrow said, citing figures from Red Cross officials in the North.

South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper, citing a South Korean intelligence source, reported that a U.S. military spy satellite photo showed that the blast devastated an area about a half-mile in radius, including densely populated neighborhoods east of the train station.

"Hundreds of homes are completely destroyed. Numerous people were killed under the debris of the collapsed homes, and hospitals are jam-packed with people injured," an ethnic Chinese visitor to the blast site told the newspaper.

Chosun quoted another witness in Dandong as saying between 1,000 and 1,500 people were killed in Ryongchon. The city has a reported population of 130,000 and is the site of chemical and metalworking plants about 90 miles north of the capital of Pyongyang.

South Korea's Yonhap news agency said the blast leveled the train station, a school and apartments within a 500-yard radius, quoting Chinese witnesses. It said there were about 500 passengers and railway officials in the station at the time of the blast.

"We have been told that the accident was caused by live electrical wire getting in contact with dynamite. The numbers we've been told are 150 dead, 1,000-plus injured, and some dead are thought to be schoolchildren, there's a school nearby," said Concern worker Chris Wardle in Pyongyang.

Initial reports by South Korean media had said 3,000 people were killed or hurt.

"What they've said is that two carriages of a train carrying dynamite — they were trying to disconnect the carriages and link them up to another train," O'Mahony said. "They got caught in the overhead electric wiring, the dynamite exploded, and that was the cause of the explosion."

Sparrow said the trains were carrying explosives similar to those used in mining. China's Xinhua News Agency reported the blast was blamed on ammonium nitrate — a chemical used in fertilizers — leaking from one train. South Korea's unification minister said the trains were carrying fuel.

Sparrow said Red Cross workers in the North were distributing tents and blankets to 4,000 families, while the international group was putting together hospital kits containing antibiotics, bandages and anesthetics.

Hospitals in China near the border were put on "high alert," Sparrow said.

In Dandong, the Chinese border city about 12 miles from Ryongchon, there was no sign of injured people being brought out of North Korea. But the city's three biggest hospitals were preparing for a possible surge of patients.

"We're ready to offer our close neighbor our best medical help anytime," said an official at Dandong Chinese Hospital.

In Seoul, Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun said China was urging North Korea to send the injured across the border to hospitals in China. But he said Pyongyang was instead asking China to dispatch relief workers to the scene.

North Korea declared an emergency in the area while initially cutting off international telephone lines to prevent details from leaking out, Yonhap reported.

The chief of the South Korean Red Cross is in North Korea on an unrelated business trip and is to evaluate what kind of aid North Korea might need, Jeong said.

The North's official KCNA news agency said in a brief dispatch that the Red Cross official was greeted Friday by North Korea's No. 2 leader, Kim Yong Nam, but it did not report the disaster.

The blast reportedly occurred nine hours after North Korean leader Kim Jong Il passed through the station on his way home from a three-day visit to China. But Jeong said that given the circumstances and the timing of the blast, "I don't think sabotage was involved."

At the time of the blast, an international passenger train carrying many ethnic Chinese was parked in the station, South Korea's JoongAng Ilbo newspaper reported, without citing sources.

The British Broadcasting Corp. showed on its Web site what it said was a satellite photo taken 18 hours after the reported explosion. The black-and-white photo showed huge clouds of black smoke billowing from the site.

South Korea's acting president, Goh Kun, ordered his government to prepare assistance.

Referring to reports of widespread devastation, Goh said at a meeting of his senior staff, "If the report is true, this is a very tragic accident and we relay deep condolences."

North Korea's U.N. Ambassador Pak Gil Yon officially requested international assistance Friday at U.N. headquarters with U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland, said U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard.

"In response, the United Nations will make emergency relief supplies available from existing stocks in North Korea and release emergency cash grants," he said.